Monday, 22 September 2014  
How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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Mohammad Al Ghazzi's children who drowned on SIEVX, Reyam, 10; Ali Almuriada, 5; and Mohammad Al Muntazar, 4

'...wherever you look you see the dead children like birds floating on the water...'

Read transcript

'on a sinking boat a woman gave birth off the coast of Java while the Christmas card I gave to my love celebrated the birth of another'

Play song

146 children ~ 142 women ~ 65 men

Questions Abound Concerning
Agrabinta Asylum Boat Tragedy
by Marg Hutton
5 October 2013
(Updated 10 October 2013)

Sinking off Agrabinta Beach West Java, 27 September 2013


The Abbott Government's tough new border protection regime - Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) - has bumped right up against the most bizarre tragedy to date. An asylum seeker vessel sailed for four days and ended up sinking about 50 metres off the coast of Java, nearly as far away from Christmas Island as when it started. When the search was called off, dozens of bodies had been retrieved including many women & children, and an unknown number remain missing. It is believed that around 81 people were on the boat when it foundered and more than 50 lost their lives.

More than a week since the drownings, details remain sketchy and contradictory. This sinking is unlike any other we are aware of it needs to be investigated in order to determine how and why such a strange and tragic incident could occur. Chillingly, the deaths on this boat were the first since the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders. Questions must be asked about what if any role, direct or indirect, Australia's military style border protection policy played in this shocking incident.

What we know about the tragedy

A partial timeline of what Australia knew of the event was provided three days after the sinking by Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin at the weekly OSB Media Briefing. (It is important to note that Australian authorities have not made public the coordinates received from the boat at any time in their briefings.) Details of the actual voyage included here have been gleaned from media reports.

The boat is reported to have departed Indonesia from Pelabuhan Ratu in Banten province on Monday 23 September and foundered four days later on Friday 27 September, sometime between 10am and midday Jakarta time very close to Agrabinta beach on the outskirts of Sukabumi, West Java. Survivors claim they were escorted to the departure point by men in uniforms. The vessel was in very poor repair, there were no life jackets and no food was provided. One survivor said he was given only one 600 ml bottle of water during the entire journey. Curiously the captain did not set a direct course for Christmas Island but meandered aimlessly - 'left turn, left turn,' a survivor described to a journalist. Christmas Island is about a 36 hour trip from Pelabuhan Ratu but after four days at sea the boat was not much closer to its destination than when it first set out.

In another odd twist, it appears that passengers on the boat contacted Australian authorities between 3 and 5 hours before the sinking and gave GPS coordinates which placed the boat about 60 nautical miles away from the sinking position. It is unlikely that the boat could have travelled this distance to the sinking location either adrift or with the engine functioning in that time and suggests that the passengers may have accidentally given the wrong longitude coordinates to AMSA. (An error of one degree in longitude in 'transcription' would account for the 60 mile discrepancy).

What were the Australian authorities doing during this event?

The day of the Agrabinta sinking was an extremely busy time for OSB. In the space of twenty four hours two boatloads of asylum seekers were rescued by Australian Border protection ships, the boats burnt at sea, the passengers returned to Indonesian waters and transferred to Indonesian authorities. In recent years it has been extremely rare for asylum seekers rescued close to Indonesia by an Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) vessel to be returned to Indonesia. The usual practice has been that asylum seekers rescued by us close to Indonesia have been taken to Christmas Island.

We cannot be certain of the exact time that the Agrabinta sinking occurred. As mentioned earlier, recent reporting out of Indonesia indicates that the boat sank about 50 metres from shore on Friday between 10am and midday Jakarta time (1-3pm AEST). If this is correct, then according to the OSB timeline Australia had coordination of the rescue effort for between five and seven hours prior to the sinking.

We know that at 10.41am AEST (7.41am Jakarta time and some two to four hours before the time of the sinking) the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) contacted Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency, BASARNAS and attempted to pass coordination of the rescue to the Indonesians. BASARNAS refused.

Questions about the impact of Australian Government policy

Why did BASARNAS refuse to coordinate the rescue of this boat which was so very close to the Indonesian coast line? Was it in any way connected to the fact that it had already agreed that same day to accept two boatloads of rescued asylum seekers? Did the people aboard the doomed boat lose their lives because they fell into a fissure that may have opened up between Australian and Indonesian Search and Rescue organisations?

When did BASARNAS finally accept coordination of the rescue effort?

Two days after the sinking the Jakarta Post ran an article claiming BASARNAS had 'allegedly been receiving illegal funds from the Australian government with regard to the handling of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East' and quoted a professor of international law from the University of Indonesia's School of Law, in Jakarta, who castigated BASARNAS:

'What a stupid thing for Basarnas to accept the refugees and asylum seekers from the Australian Navy under the pretext that they were found in Indonesian waters. It reflects stupidity, not hospitality,' he said.

There are many other questions concerning this tragedy.

If the boat was at sea for 4 days, where exactly was it during this time and why? Did it meander in circles close to the coast as suggested by some survivors or did it get a fair distance to Christmas Island and then turn back? At what point did it run out of fuel? Was the engine still running when the boat made telephone contact with Australian authorities?

What was the role of the Indonesian crew of the fishing boat? What is the truth of reports of the crew deserting when it became apparent it was sinking? What sort of captain sets sail for Christmas Island, yet four days later runs out of fuel close to the Indonesian coast, saves his own life while the majority of his passengers drown?

Did Australian policy have any influence on how this tragedy played out?

Yesterday, at the weekly OSB briefing Scott Morrison said: 'We're not running a taxi service here or a reception centre. We are running a military-led border security operation, and as a result the rules and mode of operations have changed.'

If Australia's proudly belligerent border protection policy continues to encounter stubborn resistance from Indonesia with regard to accepting coordination of search and rescue events involving asylum seeker vessels close to its coastline can we expect to see more bodies wash up on the shores of Java?



Another avoidable tragedy on our doorstep
by Marg Hutton
11 June 2013

Last week's tragic sinking near Christmas Island marks a new low in Australia's dark history of asylum-seeker mass drownings. The deaths of 60 or more people following the capsize of their 22 metre blue-hulled Indonesian fishing boat occurred after the boat had been detected and overflown just twenty eight nautical miles (NM) from Christmas Island by a Border Protection Command (BPC) flight. This is the first time a Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel (SIEV) has been observed by BPC so close to the normal Christmas Island interception zone (12 to 24 NM from Christmas Island), and yet gone on to sink nearby with all lives lost. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before; it is a terrible precedent and raises many questions.

When the boat was initially detected by a P3 Orion surveillance flight last Wednesday afternoon, it was not moving. During a press conference on Sunday the chief executive officer of Customs and Border Protection, Rear Admiral David Johnston, described what the P3 crew had reported: 'a vessel stationary in the water... people had come out to line around the outside of the vessel, they waved at the aircraft. There was no indication from their demeanour that the vessel was in distress.' It would appear that BPC had no real concerns about the safety of people on board the drifting boat as the Navy frigate HMAS Warramunga did not arrive in the area to attempt to intercept it till after midnight, seven hours after the P3 surveillance flight first spotted it.

We know that back in the Howard era, our Border Protection people on occasion left broken down SIEVs immobilised in the water for long periods. For example, Palapa, the boat that was rescued by MV Tampa in August 2001 was spotted dead in the water but was left overnight in a storm before Australian authorities responded to its plight and issued a broadcast to shipping to go to the rescue. It was a miracle that Palapa and the more than 400 passengers she carried survived this reckless neglect.

Given the number of asylum-seeker mass drowning incidents that have occurred over the last three years, it is troubling that Border Protection Command left the SIEV drifting last week for seven hours before sending the Warramunga. Might the tragedy have been averted if a police or Customs boat had been sent from Christmas Island to check on the SIEV while it was still daylight and presumably easier to locate?

Jason Clare described the middle of the night search by Warramunga: 'It conducted a spiral search of the area out to a radius of 11 nautical miles but could not find the vessel. It then searched the approach corridor to Christmas Island. It continued this search throughout Thursday and Friday. An air force P-3 aircraft also searched the area throughout Thursday and Friday.'

What the Minister described here were routine border protection procedures on Thursday and Friday to locate and intercept incoming SIEVs. These were not dedicated search and rescue responses to a potential SOLAS situation. We know this because AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre was not engaged in the search until Friday

It appears that it was not until 10am Friday morning, a full forty hours after the Wednesday sighting of the boat by BPC that Australia's search and rescue organisation AMSA was informed of the missing boat. It then issued a Pan-pan notice to all shipping in the area, stating that the vessel was now considered overdue at Christmas Island.

About 3pm AEST on Friday afternoon, the submerged capsized hull of the missing vessel was discovered by a P3 Orion flight. It was this macabre discovery that finally triggered the top priority SOLAS response, involving the mobilisation of three aircraft, HMAS Warramunga and two merchant vessels. A Mayday Relay notice was issued by AMSA at about 3am on Saturday but by then it was too late; the people who had been on board the capsized vessel had already been drifting helplessly on the boat, or in the water, for up to 56 hours (we may never know when the boat capsized and when it sank). Despite an intensive search from Friday to Monday, no survivors were ever found.

We are assured repeatedly - and indeed the Law requires - that Australia does not treat asylum seekers in SIEVs any differently to people in other vessels in regard to a safety-of-life-at-sea response. Yet it is hard to imagine a circumstance where if we came across a boatload of our own citizens stopped dead in the water and waving, that we would leave them unassisted in any way for seven or eight hours, and only after forty hours of failing to find them would we then contact our Search and Rescue organisation.

Similarly our failure to retrieve any of the bodies of the dead from the sunken boat appears to be gross disrespect and discrimination towards these people and their families.

We may never know the names of the sixty desperate people who lost their lives seeking refuge in Australia but we owe their families an explanation for how they came to die so close to Christmas Island after having been detected by BPC and why we could not retrieve even one of their bodies. Are our resources stretched so tightly that we must be so inhumane?

Jason Clare indicated that there will be an internal review of this incident. Hopefully this will be done swiftly and released publicly prior to a coronial inquest (and there certainly must be such an inquest into this case). It is almost a year now since SIEV 358 (aka Kaniva) capsized north of Christmas Island after having made a series of distress calls to AMSA over two days; the internal review for that incident was completed last October and still hasn't seen the light of day. It is reportedly being witheld until after the coronial inquiry later this month.

The brave men and women who work at the coal face of our Border Protection system do an amazing job in very difficult circumstances. These men and women put their own lives on the line time and again to save the lives of others and if it wasn't for their efforts the number of asylum seekers who have drowned at sea would undoubtedly be many times higher than it currently stands. But the upper echelons of Border Protection management need to be more transparent and accountable in terms of their safety-of-life-at-sea attitudes and practices, if they are to give the public faith that they are willing and able to learn from their mistakes. After all the well-publicised tragedies over the past three years this latest shameful tragedy should never have been allowed to happen.

AusSar 2013/3821 Incident - 5 to 7 June 2013 north of Christmas Island



(For an archive of documents on this sinking see here)


Reluctant Rescuers by Tony Kevin


Morrison Transcripts

Critiques of Abbott gov't secrecy

Scott Morrison says 12 asylum-seeker boats stopped under turnback policy ~Farrell, Guardian, 18 Sep 2014

Scott Morrison ends secrecy [sic] surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders ~Owens, Aus, 18 Sep 2014

It is time to betray Australia ~ Rundle, Crikey, 10 Jul 2014

Report of Senate Committee into breaches of Indonesian Territorial Waters ~ 27 Mar 2014

Australia breaches RI Sovereignty? ~ Hikmahanto Juwana, Jakarta Post, 13 Mar 2014

Training, lifeboats and asylum seekers in the 'battle space' ~ Keane, Crikey, 6 Mar 2014

Transcript of Azita Bokan interview ~ Glover, ABC, 21 Feb 2014

Transcript of Video provided to ABC recorded in a Lifeboat by asylum seekers on 5 Feb2014

Video provided to ABC recorded by asylum seekers in Lifeboat ~ 5 Feb 2014

OSB secrecy is the enemy ~ Hutton,, 6 Feb 2014

Patrols on turn-back orders ~ Butterly, West Australian, 31 Jan 2014

Have we lost our bearings entirely ~ Editorial, Age, 18 Jan 2014

How Australia trespassed into Indonesia's waters, had wrong information ~ McPhedran, Aus, 18 Jan 2014

Back off, Jakarta tells Australia ~ Nicholson & Alford, Aus, 18 Jan 2014

Indonesia 'deplores' border breaches ~ Salna & Osborne, AAP, 17 Jan 2014

Australian border protection vessels 'breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty', Scott Morrison ~ Roberts, ABC, 17 Jan 2014

Navy in breach of Jakarta's waters during Operation Sovereign Borders ~ Nicholson & Maley, Aus, 17 Jan 2014

Asylum seekers say they were tricked by navy ~ Bachelard, SMH, 17 Jan 2014

Australia turns back asylum seeker boat from Indonesia ~ Bachelard, SMH, 16 Jan 2014

3rd Boat turned Back, Another gone missing ~ Bachelard, SMH, 15 Jan 2014

Navy sailors now on 'war footing' to turn back boats ~ Wroe, SMH, 15 Jan 2014

Australia break through Indonesian Waters ~, 9 Jan 2014
See also this article

Turned-back refugees claimed being tortured by Australian naval officers ~ Antara, 8 Jan 2014

Three Australian Warship Breaking Region RI ~ MetroTVNews, 7 Jan 2014

Customs can't be sure of ultimate fate of asylum boat that vanished in June ~ Davidson, Guardian, 26 December 2013

Moves to rethink life-jacket policy for boatpeople ~ Wilson, Aus, 23 Dec 2013

Customs and Border Protection Service raises doubt on asylum-seeker boat rescue response ~ Hall, SMH, 22 Dec 2013

Three asylum seekers killed as huge wave hits boat off Java coast ~ Roberts, ABC, 10 Dec 2013

Coalition just following orders on boat secrecy ~ Balogh, Aus, 2 Dec 2013

Indonesia leaves Scott Morrison in dark on detention centres ~ O'Brien, SMH, 28 Nov 2013

Asylum-seeker disaster risk high as navy stays out of Jakarta's zone ~ Shanahan & Alford, Aus, 28 Nov 2013

Asylum brawl flares as another boat gets into trouble ~ Alford, Aus, 14 Nov 2013

Indonesia to change the rules ~ Kenny & Bachelard, SMH, 14 Nov 2013

Some stumbles but boats are stopping ~ Stewart, Aus, 14 Nov 2013

Explainer: the law of the sea and asylum seekers ~ Bateman, Conversation, 13 Nov 2013

Indonesia helps AFP stop boats ~ Maley & Taylor, Aus, 12 Nov 2013

We stop the circus to stop the boats ~ Morrison, DT, 29 Oct 2013

All at sea on boats policy ~ Editorial, Herald Sun, 28 Oct 2013

It's time to honour fellow boat people ~ Arnold Zable, Age, 19 Oct 2013

Australian connections to drowned asylum seekers - SIEVX 12th anniversary ~ Marg Hutton, Eureka Street, 19 Oct 2013

Indonesia changes tack as asylum-seekers returned ~ Maley & Stewart, Aus, 14 Oct 2013

For recent media articles & government comment on the asylum seeker vessel that sank off Java on 27 September see here

Basarnas accused of receiving illegal funding from Australia ~ JP, 29 Sep 2013

Australian Navy sends asylum seekers back to Indonesia after interception off coast of Java ~ Roberts, ABC, 27 Sep 2013

Indonesia fails to follow Coalition asylum-seeker script ~ Alford, Aus, 27 Sep 2013

Australian navy returns rescued asylum seekers to Indonesia ~ Bachelard, SMH, 27 Sep 2013

Bowen says Coalition must address Alexander Downer's comments ~ ABC, 27 Sep 2013

Downer accuses Indonesia of 'pious rhetoric' ~ Hawley, AM, 27 Sep 2013

Jakarta fires shot across Tony Abbott's bow on asylum boats ~ Alford, Aus, 27 Sep 2013

Indonesian navy warns of asylum boat turn-back 'casualties' ~ AAP, 26 Sep 2013

Is it illegal to turn back boats in international waters to Indonesia? ~ ABC, 26 Sep 2013

Australia's asylum seeker policy putting relationship with Indonesia at risk ~ Roberts, PM 26 Sep 2013

Yet more wars we can't win ~ Waterford, SMH 24 Sep 2013

Scott Morrison and his marionette set sail for secrecy ~ Keane, Crikey 24 Sep 2013

Greens push to use Senate powers to reveal boat arrival secrets ~ Ireland, SMH, 24 Sep 2013

Border protection silence is deadly ~ Kevin, ES, 24 Sep 2013

Abbott Government uses frigates to tighten screws on asylum seekers ~ McPhedran,News Ltd, 24 Sep 2013

Christmas Island administrator would 'reconsider position' if gagged over boat arrivals ~ ABC, 23 Sep 2013

Proposal for transit ports stirs anger ~ Bachelard, Age, 23 Sep 2013

First boat arrives... ~ ABC, 22Sep 2013

Alienation - Alienation ~ Burnside, Tim Costello Lecture, Sep 2013

Abbott Risks It All To Stop The Boats ~ Eltham, NM, 19 Sep 2013

Tony Abbott's asylum seeker policies 'offensive', says senior Indonesian politician ~ Bachelard, SMH, 19 Sep 2013

Australia and Indonesia should share the burden of asylum seekers ~ Lateline, 18 Sep 2013

Video: Angry asylum seekers demand money back from people smugglers ~ Toohey, Aus, 12 Sep 2013

Asylum seekers: Drowning on our watch ~ Hill, ABC, Background Briefing, 1 Sep, 2013 (audio)

Pleas fail to avert boats tragedy ~ O'Brien, SMH, 1 Sep 2013

Asylum-seekers made it less than half-way from Indonesia when boat began to sink ~ Taylor, Aus, 21 Aug 2013

AMSA confirms 106 asylum seekers rescued after boat capsized off Christmas Island ~ ABC, 20 Aug 2013

Rescue launched for asylum-seekers after boat capsizes ~ Taylor, Aus, 20 Aug 2013

Body-recovery equipment 'will spare sailors' ~ Stewart, Aus, 10 Aug 2013

Question on Notice regarding Waleed Sultani, Senator Milne to Home Affairs, June 2013

Report of Inquest into the death of 17 persons off Christmas Island on 21 Jun 2012, Alastair Hope, State Coroner, Western Australian Coroner's Court, 31 Jul 2013

Time for scrutiny on boat rescues, Waterford, CT, 28 Jul 2013

Rescue delays key to boat fatalities, O'Brien, Age, 28 Jul 2013

Redacted Internal Review of the Maritime Incidents of 21 June and 27 June 2012 ~ Australian Customs & Border Protection Service & Department of Defence (courtesy SBS)

Secret asylum boat report withheld from police, O'Brien, Bris Times, 26 Jul 2013

A matter that should weigh on our conscience ~ Editorial, Age, 25 Jul 2013

Australian rescue agency failed to help in boat tragedy where 104 drowned ~ O'Brien, SMH, 24 Jul 2013

Asylum-seeker boat bound for Christmas Island sinks after leaving Java, 18 still missing, feared dead ~ ABC, 24 Jul 2013

Christmas Island-bound asylum seeker boat sinks off Java, three dead ~ Toohey, DT, 24 Jul 2013

Inquest on asylum seeker boat tragedy to resume ~ O'Brien, SMH, 24 Jul 2013

Search for suspected missing asylum seeker boat ~ Hall, Hurst & Harrison, SMH, 22 Jul 2013

Baby's revival a beacon in a sea of misery ~ Taylor, Aus, 22 Jul 2013

$200,000 bounty on the head of local people smugglers ~ Ministerial Press Release, 21 Jul 2013

Fatal shore of Kevin Rudd's making ~ Stewart, Aus, 20 Jul 2013

Boatloads lost in sea of red tape ~ Robinson & Stone, Aus, 20 Jul 2013

Transcript of Joint Press Conference ~ PM, PM NG, AG..., 19 Jul 2013

Take politics out of asylum debate: Siev X survivor ~ Cox, SBS, 18 Jul 2013

Border patrols at breaking point over asylum boats ~ Stewart & Taylor, Aus, 18 Jul 2013

A two-year-old asylum seeker lost her mother and sister when a boat carrying more than 150 capsized ~ Jones, News Ltd, 17 Jul 2013

Press Conference Transcript ~ Minister Clare & Admiral Johnston, 17 Jul 2013

Border Protection Command assists vessel ~ Australian Customs & Border Protection Service, 16 Jul 2013

AUSSAR 2013-4816 Mayday Alert ~ RCC, 16 Jul 2013

Interview with Michael Pezzullo of Customs & Border Protection ~ Fran Kelly, ABC, 15 Jul 2013 (audio here)

Baby boy found dead, search for survivors after asylum seeker boat capsizes ~ O'Brien, SMH, 13 Jul 2013

Jason Clare - Press Conference - Sydney ~ 13 Jul 2013

Customs Media Release ~ 13 Jul 2013

AMSA Media Release ~ 13 Jul 2013

Asylum boat with 97 onboard capsized ~ AMSA, 12 Jul 2013

Tony Burke says people-smugglers sabotage boats to exploit tow-back loophole ~ Kelly, Aus, 9 Jul 2013

'Nothing done' as SIEV 358 boatpeople died ~ Rintoul, Aus, 25 Jun 2013

New footage exposes confession of people smuggler involved in fatal boat sinking ~ Roberts, AM, 25 Jun 2013

Trading in Tragedy ~ Bachelard, Age, 25 Jun 2013

How a deadly voyage forced humiliating policy retreat ~ Bachelard, Age, 25 Jun 2013

Fishermen 'told not to help asylum-seekers' ~ Shine & Wood, Aus, 15 Jun 2013

Fishos told to leave asylum boat alone ~ David Wood, NT news, 14 Jun 2013

Concerns as another boat goes missing ~ Judith Ireland, 11 Jun 2013

Search and rescue operation West of Christmas Island ~ BPC, 10 Jun 2013

Asylum seeker search: no survivors from sunken asylum boat near Christmas Island ~ AM, 10 Jun 2013

Bodies of drowned asylum seekers left in the water ~ Judith Ireland, Age, 10 Jun 2013

Another avoidable tragedy...
Heartfelt message...
Australia's Shameful Response
AFP & People Smugglers
250,000 Questions
Wheels of Justice Grind Slowly
...Man on the Inside...?
SIEVX - The 10th Anniversary
Ten years on...

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